The Heisman Trophy is the most illustrious individual award in all of American sports. Despite that — or, perhaps, because of it — it generates a tremendous amount of debate on a year-to-year basis, some of it vitriolic.
The 2021 Heisman race likely will be remembered as such, not only for it being seemingly wide open even into the latter stages of the regular season, but also because of several perceived snubs absent from the finalists.
The betting favorite to win the trophy in 2021 is Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, whom many would claim is not even the most talented player on his team. That honor would go to linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who leads the country in 32.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Those stats also dwarf those of Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson, the lone defender on the list.
Other detractors of 2021’s finalists note how Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, one-time leaders of the Heisman discussion, were absent from the finalists. While that takes nothing away from the four finalists (Young, Hutchinson, Kenny Pickett and C.J. Stroud) it does illustrate the fervor with which fans discuss the Heisman.
The 2021 race is not the first one to generate controversy, however. Not by a long shot. There have been several head-scratching races over recent years, whether because they were missing obvious stars among their finalists, featured less-than-inspiring competitors or simply whiffed on who ultimately took home the hardware.
That’s not likely to change anytime in the near future — not as long as the voting process includes 870 voting members and regional bias, anyway. Since Sporting News can’t look into the future, we look into the past with the gift of hindsight to remember some of the worst Heisman Trophy races in the award’s illustrious history:
2009: Mark Ingram over Toby Gerhart, Ndamukong Suh
The 2009 Heisman Trophy race will be remembered not only as the closest race in the award’s history (Alabama running back Mark Ingram beat runner-up Toby Gerhart of Stanford by 28 points) but also for the fact Ingram did not win the top individual award for his position, the Doak Walker. Gerhart actually out-produced the sophomore in rushing yards and touchdowns (Gerhart had 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns to Ingram’s 1,658 yards and 17 scores) to win the award.
The most maddening part of the 2009 race wasn’t that Ingram beat Gerhart, but that Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the top defensive player in the country and easily the most dominant/outstanding/valuable player, only finished fourth in the final balloting. He finished the season with 85 tackles, 24 for a loss and 12 sacks. He was nigh unstoppable in the Big 12 championship game, but that wasn’t enough to secure him as the first defense-only player to win the award.
2004: Adrian Peterson’s freshman status costs him
Leinart was the quarterback of the Trojans in the midst of their Pete Carroll-era dynasty, and put up 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns to six interceptions for the undefeated Trojans — a respectable decision, all things considered. But Leinart’s play was nothing groundbreaking, whereas a freshman running back from Oklahoma was demonstrating to the world how dominant a player he would be for years to come.
Adrian Peterson put up astounding numbers in his first season in Norman, rushing for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns with 5.7 yards per attempt. That included nine straight games of 100-plus yards and three of 220-plus yards. He was clearly different than the rest of his Heisman competition (Leinart, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and Utah quarterback Alex Smith) and would go on to have the greatest professional career. But voters’ insistence on voting for upperclassmen kept the award out of Peterson’s deserving hands. An underclassmen would not win the award until Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007. A freshman did not win it until Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012.
2003: Larry Fitzgerald’s brilliance snubbed
DeVonta Smith in 2020 became the first receiver to win the Heisman since Desmon Howard in 1991. But Larry Fitzgerald should have claimed that honor in the 2003 Heisman race after putting up 92 receptions for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns for 8-5 Pitt.
White had 3,846 passing yards and 40 touchdowns to 10 interceptions for the BCS championship game-bound Sooners but, again, voters chose to prioritize stats over play when it came to voting. In that sense, it will almost always be a quarterback award, considering no other player touches the ball more. At least voters understood Fitzgerald’s brilliance enough to make him a not-too-distant runner-up in 2003 (he finished just 128 points behind White).
2000: LaDainian Tomlinson finishes fourth
Tomlinson wasn’t exactly an unknown commodity when he rushed for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior for 10-2 TCU in 2000; he had already rushed 1,974 yards and 20 scores the year prior, when Ron Dayne won the Heisman. Yet despite rushing for 4,000-plus yards in the span of two seasons, Tomlinson finished an absurd fourth in the Heisman balloting behind three quarterbacks (starting to see a trend yet?) Those were Florida State’s Chris Weinke, Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel and Purdue’s Drew Brees, respectively.
While those players certainly put up respectable numbers, they were, again, hardly earth-shattering. Meanwhile, Tomlinson’s single-season rushing total was the fourth-highest at the time he set it in 2000, and was 8 yards more than Heisman winner Tony Dorsett’s mark in 1976.
1992: Gino Torretta keeps Marshall Faulk from Heisman
The year is 1992. Miami’s dynasty of the ’80s appeared to be going strong into the new decae, as the Hurricanes came off a split national title in 1991 and were ready to compete for the consensus championship in 1992. The Hurricanes had the nation’s top-ranked offense, led by Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta. But his numbers (228 completions out of 402 attempts for 3,060 yards and 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions) look downright pedestrian from the modern lense.
History doesn’t look kindly on Torretta’s Heisman, especially after Alabama’s top-ranked defense schooled the trash-talking Hurricanes in the 1993 Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. Meanwhile, sophomore running back Marshall Faulk of San Diego State rushed for 1,630 yards and 15 touchdowns. Hindsight is 20/20, but voters should have seen that Faulk’s brilliance could be credited to himself, and not just the Aztecs’ WAC opponents.
1980: George Rogers over Hugh Green, Herschel Walker
South Carolina’s George Rogers had arguably better stats over his Georgia counterpart, rushing for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns to Walker’s 1,616 yard and 15 touchdowns, despite the fact the latter out-rushed Rogers 219-168 in their head-to-head matchup. Meanwhile, arguably the best player in the country, Pitt defensive end Hugh Green, finished as the runner-up in 1980.
How dominant was Green in 1980? He had 123 tackles, 17 tackles, seven forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, six passes defensed and 17 quarterback hurries. He won the Sporting News Player of the Year, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards that season, though clearly didn’t impress Heisman voters enough to warrant becoming the first defensive player to win the award.
1956: Jim Brown’s unrecognized greatness
Paul Hornung was a versatile player for Notre Dame in 1956 but still had more interceptions (13) than passing touchdowns (three). Meanwhile, Syracuse running back Jim Brown led all Heisman finalists with 986 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, all on top of a 6.2 yard-per-carry average. He finished fifth behind the likes of Tennessee’s Johnny Majors, Oklahoma’s Tommy McDonald and Oklahoma’s Jerry Tubbs.
It’s easy to see why Brown’s greatness went unrecognized in college football. Five years following his graduation, Orange running back Ernie Davis became the first Black player in college football history to win the Heisman.